This is a slightly controversial topic – The North vs. the South. Travellers we met along the way love discussing the differences between North and South Vietnam. Of course, today it is one independent country, but it’s not-so-distant history is often on display for you to see. The culture in Vietnam is slowly moving towards a more collaborative approach and while the scars of it’s past are not fully healed they are determined to create a better future.
Hanoi is an ancient city of about 7 million people. It has survived many wars and colonial rule and has tons of character to show for it. It also has maybe the highest concentration of motor bike traffic anywhere in the world, which makes navigating the streets interesting to say the least. The streets are always busy with pedestrians, motorbikes, cyclos (pedicabs) and the odd car or truck trying to make it through the madness. Motorcycles zip around in every direction, criss-crossing through the intersections and sometimes even riding down the sidewalks. It’s quite a thing to see! Even with all the mayhem of the streets, we found the feeling of Hanoi to be quite warm and welcoming.
Hoa Lo Prison Museum is located in Hanoi. It was built by the French in the late 1800’s in downtown Hanoi. The museum does a good job of taking you back in time to the 17th century. It depicts how it had been used to house people who were thought to be anti-government during the French colonial rule. The prisoners lived in horrific conditions, were rarely allowed to shower, barely fed and enslaved to help keep up the prison and its grounds. Many testimonies of the men and women prisoners are posted on the walls detailing their name, time spent at Hoa Lo and government position. Due to the many types of torture as well as the guillotine, many didn’t make it out alive. When the Vietnam war started, the purpose for the prison shifted. It was then used to detain American fighter pilots who were shot down while on bombing missions around Hanoi. The Americans – who nicknamed it the “Hanoi Hilton” – seemed to have it a lot better than the Vietnamese who were previously held there (at least that’s the depiction the museum offered). There are pictures of men playing basketball, badminton and volleyball, growing vegetable gardens and celebrating Christmas with decorations and a full feast.
Ho Chi Minh City is the economic hub of the country with closer to 8 million people. There are well-dressed men and women driving 4-wheeled vehicles to reach their jobs in tall sky scrapers. The traffic is just as bonkers as Hanoi but at first glance you can tell this city means business. Our first interaction was with a student who wanted to practise his English. He told us of how he is an only child despite the fact that both of his parents have 10 siblings. From their town in the Mekong Delta they pay for him to live and attend university in the city in hopes his economics degree will provide a stable future.
HCMC is named after Ho Chi Minh, respectfully referred to as Uncle Ho. He had first fought for Vietnam against the French and stood against the US in the ’60s. He spoke 6 different languages, had no family, no wife. He had dedicated his life to the liberation of Vietnam. Unfortunately, he died before the liberation of his country. In 1976 Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City to honour him.
The War Reminants Museum is full of Vietnam War exhibits with some information about the Indochina war with French colonists. The first floor displays both sides of the war – the American propaganda as well as protests all over the globe. There are quotes from letters people had written and the stories of three men who set themselves on fire in protest (an American, a Japanese and a European). The second floor shows the massacre. There are photos of cities being destroyed, people being murdered and prisoners being tortured, with an in depth section dedicated to Agent Orange and its victims. The third floor is about life after the war. There are many before and after photos of cities reduced to rubble during the war that have rebounded and rebuilt since then. The devastation can be hard to comprehend. HCMC, which represented South Vietnam during the war, does not portray the war through rose-coloured glasses.
The Cu Chi Tunnels take up an area that’s about 150 sq km. There are 250km of tunnels. The tunnels have three levels: the first level is 3m deep, the second 6m and the deepest level is 10m. The average size of a tunnel is between 30cm and 40cm wide by 60cm to 90cm high. There are ventilation holes every 15m. If the Americans tried to drown them with water they couldn’t because the tunnels emptied into the Saigon River. If the Americans tried to gas them out, the Vietnamese would flee to the deepest level and the gas would escape through ventilation. The Vietnamese had thought of nearly every way to deter the Americans. The tunnels were so smartly built that the tiny entrance holes could easily be covered with leaves or dirt and be unnoticeable; the ventilation holes were disguised as termite mounds and they would put American soap in them so if dogs came sniffing along they wouldn’t make a fuss. The grounds are scattered with B52 bomb craters and the trees are all skinny since they have only been growing since the end of the war. 16,000 Vietnamese people lived in the tunnels (1,000 of them women) and only 6,000 people came out alive.
Vietnam has been through a lot. Everywhere you go, reminders of the wars they have fought surround you, as does the sparkle in every person’s eyes. The next generation have grand plans for their strong and mighty country. HCMC is where you want to go if you’re a real history buff. Hanoi is more laid back and picturesque. Both are very worthy of a visit.
Have you been to Vietnam? Did you notice any disparity between the north and the south?